Pope Francis has issued an Apostolic Letter, Spiritus Domini, in the form of a “Motu proprio” which constitutes an amendment to canon law, extending the established liturgical rite for the institution of lectors and acolytes to explicitly include women. While the change affects lay men as well as women, it is clear from the wording that this is intended as a response to those who call for greater recognition of the ‘baptismal priesthood’ of women in the Church’s liturgical life. You can download the Apostolic Letter at this link.

Some have expressed regret that the letter upholds the prohibition against women receiving the Sacrament of Orders (i.e. ordination to the diaconate or sacramental priesthood), and many may see it as too little too late. However, CWS founder and theologian Professor Tina Beattie welcomes this development for several reasons:

  • While women have been serving on the altar and acting as readers since the early 1990s, their ability to do so has depended on the permission of their local priests and bishops. In parishes and communities where the Catholic hierarchy is opposed to the greater participation of women, they have been denied access to these liturgical roles. The change to canon law formally institutes these roles so that women are no longer subject to such clerical whims.
  • Pope Francis describes this as a doctrinal development which is responsive to the charisms of lay ministries and to the needs of the times with regard to evangelisation. The language is significant. While women have in recent years been promoted to more senior roles of administration and leadership in the Vatican, these pertain to the management of the institution and not to the doctrinal and liturgical life of faith. To affirm that doctrine can develop with regard to women’s liturgical roles is to make a significant step forward, notwithstanding the continuing exclusion of women from Holy Orders. Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh tweets,

If even someone as cautious as Ivereigh sees this as part of a process, this could be taken as a sign of encouragement for those who want greater recognition of women’s sacramental significance.

  • Setting aside debates about ordination, this latest development shows that it is a small task to amend canon law when that is the only obstacle to women’s participation. The role of cardinal is currently closed to women only because canon law reserves it to bishops and priests, but there is no doctrinal requirement for cardinals to be ordained. If this canonical restriction were removed, women could be made cardinals and would therefore play a crucial role in papal elections.
  • Finally, as the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, Pope Francis offers a vision for the post-Covid Church which is perhaps the greatest hope for inspiring a new world order based on solidarity, compassion and sustainability. As he himself acknowledges, women leaders have been more effective than their male counterparts in handlng the pandemic. The most successful sustainable development projects and ecological campaigns have also relied on the full participation and leadership of women.

The more Pope Francis can recognize women as co-disciples and co-workers in the tasks ahead, the more likely he is to be able to call upon the vast resources of energy, commitment and vision that women bring to their faith, their communities and their professional and vocational roles. This latest development may fall short of affirming the full sacramental dignity of women made in the image of God, but it can be embraced with integrity and affirmed as a genuinely welcome doctrinal development.

Pope Francis greets Sister Rita Mboshu Kongo, a theologian and member of the Daughters of Mary Most Holy, during a Mass for the Congolese Catholic community in Rome in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 1, 2019. The Mass included elements of Congolese culture. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)